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The decline in exports slowed in October, bringing the rate to just below levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic, as global demand for products such as cars has risen in line with a gradual recovery in business activities, government data showed Wednesday.

Exports edged down 0.2% from a year earlier to ¥6.57 trillion ($63 billion), with auto shipments to the United States and China showing a significant increase while those of diesel oil and cargo ships remained sluggish, the Finance Ministry said in a preliminary report.

In September, exports had fallen 4.9%.

That said, they shrank for the 23rd consecutive month since December 2018, tying the longest streak of monthly on-year falls set in July 1987 when the country was facing fierce trade friction with the United States amid Japan's rise as an economic power.

Imports decreased 13.3% to ¥5.69 trillion, down for the 18th straight month, mainly on the falling price of crude oil purchased from the United Arab Emirates and other countries. But the decline was smaller than the 17.4% drop in the previous month.

The goods trade surplus stood at ¥872.90 billion in the reporting month, securing black ink for the fourth month in a row, and up from the ¥687.84 billion recorded in September.

By product, exports of cars grew 3.0%, turning positive from a 0.5% decrease in September to post their first rise since July 2019. Those of auto parts also climbed 4.0%, following a 7.7% fall the previous month.

By country, exports to China expanded 10.2% to ¥1.46 trillion, while imports fell 3.7% to ¥1.54 trillion. Exports to the United States increased 2.5% to ¥1.30 trillion, with imports shrinking 15.6% to ¥600.76 billion.

Increased exports to China and the U.S., the nation's two largest trading partners, could not make up for sharp drops in shipments to other areas, causing overall exports to decline, a ministry official said. Exports to the Middle East tumbled 30.3%, and those to South and Central America sagged 26.2%.

Japan's exports posted a double-digit fall between March and August due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and concerns are growing that recent virus resurgences in Europe and the United States could deal a fresh blow.

Exports to Asia as a whole rose 4.4% to ¥3.69 trillion and imports slipped 6.9% to ¥3.01 trillion.

With the European Union, exports were down 2.6% at ¥599.23 billion and imports dropped 11.4% to ¥638.85 billion.

"The latest outcome shows that Japan's exports are picking up vigorously, reflecting that the global economy is moving toward its normal state faster than expected," said Takeshi Okuwaki, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

Okuwaki said the virus resurgence in Europe "won't inflict great damage" on the nation's trade, given that its exports to the area account for only about 10% of the total.

However, he said large-scale economic restrictions in the United States could have a serious impact.

Exports played a key role in helping the world's third-largest economy to grow an annualized real 21.4% in the July-September period from the previous quarter, the biggest expansion in 40 years, after it shrank 28.8% in the April-June term amid the government's state of emergency declaration over the virus in April.

All figures were compiled on a customs-cleared basis.

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